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Playful purpose: using games to connect and inspire

14 October 2021

4 minutes to read

Playful purpose: using games to connect and inspire

Except amongst the youngest of students, playfulness is not usually a characteristic promoted by the curriculum or encouraged by teachers. In fact, play is often seen as a distraction from rigorous learning activities, or a sign that students are lacking in focus. This attitude is one that Dr Maarten Koeners (College of Medicine and Health) and Dr Steph Comley (Technology Enhanced Learning) have been endeavouring to dispel through the Playful University project.

The Playful University Club logoThe project, supported by the University of Exeter’s Education Incubator, is particularly interested in how a playful attitude or mindset could foster communities, spread joy and compassion, and facilitate learning. Its launch in Autumn 2020 was particularly timely given that Exeter staff and students found themselves unable to return to campus as planned for the 2020-21 academic year. The Playful University Club (PUC), founded by the project, provided opportunities for house-bound members of the Exeter community to meet up and have a laugh during an otherwise grim time.

Two of the Club’s most popular activities were game nights and game mornings, during which PUC members congregated on Zoom to experiment with both digital and analogue games. The group made use of several options available through Net Games, which allows players to join remotely using their mobile phones; favourite games included One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Codewords. Lower-tech games included Bring Your Own Book, which required nothing more than being able to grab a nearby book or magazine to find a phrase that responded to the prompt randomly provided by the game master. For example, if the prompt was: ‘something you don’t want to hear your weatherman say,’ the response might be – to quote Shakespeare – ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’.

A dedicated Microsoft Teams Team was set up to keep PUC members connected, pose ‘playful challenges’ and provide information about game-related development activities such as the monthly seminar series, which featured a range of internal and external creative experts. The Playful University Club was also affiliated with community-wide activities such as the innovative Kinder Exeter: Compassion Through Play, a week-long festival of play. This collaboration in particular demonstrates the way in which PUC activities were not just about playing games, but also using those activities to lift spirits, support wellbeing, and forge connections amongst diverse community members.

Exeter Festival of Compassion posterThis is also evidenced in the work the Playful University Club team are doing to lead and support the upcoming Festival of Compassion, an Exeter-based celebration timed to coincide with World Compassion Day on 28th November. The Festival addresses many of the same values and themes that manifested over the course of the PUC Incubator project, demonstrating the ways in which ‘play’ is not just associated with gaming, but also (to name just a few) music, art, dance, food, and one’s general outlook on and approach to life.

The legacy of the Playful University project will extend long beyond the close of the Festival due to the Club’s impact on approaches to teaching and learning across the University of Exeter. The institution’s recent education conference, EduExe, featured a drop-in session where colleagues were challenged to think about how gaming could transform their education practice – and were given supplies to create and trial a game on the spot. The session was inspired by two memorable workshops run by the Playful University Club – an intensive game-making course delivered by Alke Groppel-Wegener of Staffordshire University, and a virtual field trip designed collaboratively by Jana Wendler, Amy Strike  and student interns. The EduExe activities were organised by one of several Playful Champions who undertook training through the PUC and are now working hard to introduce colleagues to playful approaches and tools such as Gathertown events, interactive Mural maps, and interactive stories written using the ink software.

Building on the PUC, Playful Champions and Adam Lusby’s journey of creating education that is divergent, a new follow-up initiative has been born – the ‘Playful Lab’. This weekly session explores learning through the medium of play. An informal, in-person open group formed from the wider Exeter community, students, and staff, Playful Lab focuses on the practice (learning through doing) of games (physical, cognitive, computer, etc), storytelling – and hopefully a little magic.

The next step is to evaluate the effectiveness of playful education: this is being investigated through feedback sessions, Personal Meaning Maps, interviews and questionnaires, which are currently being analysed and will be published in peer-reviewed papers and education blogs.

Exeter staff and students who are interested in joining the PUC for updates and forthcoming activities can email to join the mailing list. Those wishing to experiment with games can make use of the Playful University Games Library and should keep their eye on the PUC Twitter feed for news around playful learning. Exeter staff who are seeking support with the pedagogical and curriculum-design aspects of gamification – and who would like to make use of a range of game-making supplies – can get in touch with the Academic Development Team.

Playing with purpose aims to extend the idea of play and how it can joyously co-create knowledge and skills – making the University a compassionate place where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles becomes a reward in its own right.


For more information please contact:


Dr Caitlin KightDr Maarten Koeners
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